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Company Town : United Talent Agency’s Star Ascends

Some civilizations turn historic places into shrines to good or evil. Others merely redecorate them and move on, which helps explain how United Talent Agency came to occupy the sweeping Beverly Hills office that junk bond kingpin Michael Milken lorded over in the 1980s.

UTA signed a lease on the space just one day after Drexel Burnham Lambert abandoned ship. It then transformed Milken’s trading floor, with its legendary thicket of stock machines, into the kind of plushly modern office befitting Hollywood’s version of the corporate predator. Now, some three years later, UTA is fighting for the recognition to match the digs.

With a growing client list and some high-profile movies burning up the box office this summer, the agency claims it has earned the right to be mentioned in the same breath with the traditional Big Three firms--Creative Artists Agency, International Creative Management and William Morris Agency. Not everyone agrees with that point of view. But at the very least, UTA has emerged as a solid and formidable presence in the acronym-heavy world of talent agencies.

Marquee clients like actor Jim Carrey, whose much-anticipated movie, “The Mask,” opens Friday, and actress Sandra Bullock of the breakaway hit “Speed” round out a sizable list of big-name screenwriters and TV talent, including actors David Caruso of “NYPD Blue,” Paul Reiser of “Mad About You” and Julia Louis-Dreyfus of “Seinfeld.”

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While Hollywood sources say UTA still has a long way to go in building the kind of movie star-director list that would allow it to “package” big features, they credit the agency with having a very profitable TV division, with hits such as “Married With Children” and “Mad About You.” Says Walt Disney Studios Chairman Jeffrey Katzenberg: “They’re great entrepreneurs. They keep adding and adding, and suddenly you look and realize these guys have a real business here.”

UTA was created in 1991 with the merger of Bauer Benedek and Leading Artists talent agencies, and it expanded again in 1992 by adding several agents from Inter-Talent. Today the agency’s 10 partners are Marty Bauer, Peter Benedek, James Berkus, Gary Cosay, J.J. Harris, Judy Hofflund, Gavin Polone, David Schiff, Robert Stein and Jeremy Zimmer. With 40 agents, UTA is less than half the size of its leading competitors. But it’s also larger than most of the so-called boutique firms--and therein lies its image problem.

In the superlative-strewn Hollywood landscape of bigger, better and boldest, niche players tend to get lost. Hofflund, who joined UTA from Inter-Talent, says one challenge is convincing clients that bigger isn’t necessarily better.

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“The truth is that we have all the same information and the same relationships with the production heads at the studios,” she said. “But there’s something about the fraternity of a larger agency that makes (some talent) feel more comfortable. And that makes it harder.”

Harder still are defections, when clients either become successful or hit a career lull. Actor Michael J. Fox made headlines when he moved to CAA from UTA late last year, to be followed by director Brian de Palma. Sources say UTA subsequently tried to launch its own talent raids, without much success, though director John Schlesinger (“Midnight Cowboy”) recently transferred to UTA from ICM. “They’re determined to get working clients from other agencies,” said one source. “It’s like a running joke.”

Hofflund said raids go with the turf, but she denied there’s any special campaign under way to turn the tables.

“There’s no mandate to just expand, because that’s completely contrary to our philosophy,” she said. “There’s definitely a mandate to continue to grow. It’s what every agency does. . . . But there was never a time when we all said, ‘This month, let’s amp it up on recruiting.’ ”

Whatever weaknesses exist in the feature area, writing isn’t one of them. Zimmer, who heads the literary department, said UTA writers worked on six of the seven movies that grossed more than $100 million last year--"Jurassic Park,” “The Firm,” “In the Line of Fire,” “The Fugitive,” “Indecent Proposal” and “The Bodyguard.” At UTA, he said, “we don’t think that on the food chain of Hollywood, (writers) are the amoebas.”

Bauer, for his part, says UTA’s strength is growing talent from the ground up. It plucked Carrey out of relative obscurity when he was on TV’s “In Living Color.” Bullock was taken on after she was spotted in a small movie. “It’s very difficult to attract the major clients from a place like CAA,” Bauer said. “So our business plan is to develop our own. I don’t know if that’s a niche, but it’s certainly a business plan. . . . We’ve found it’s not tough to hang on to them if you were involved with them at the beginning of their ascension.”

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Stein, who heads UTA’s fledgling new-media division in addition to agenting, said chemistry is often what ultimately matters. It was “The Mask” director Chuck Russell, Stein’s client, who suggested that Carrey be considered for the starring role in the movie, long before Carrey became a star commanding $7 million a film after the success of “Ace Ventura: Pet Detective.”

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“We can all win on any given Sunday,” Stein said of the agency. “The trick is to put the right elements together.”


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